Chapter 3: Theory

In this chapter, I will give a more comprehensive definition of the term reconstruction and we will talk about the problems and possible solutions that we will encounter during our projects. To do good reconstructions yourself, you have to understand what they really are and what kind of methodology lies at its base.

What is an archaeological reconstruction?

A reconstruction is the act of recreating something lost. In our case, we want to recreate ancient architecture and have to find ways to do this in a scientific manner. Other words for reconstruction can be restoration, reconstitution, simulation, recreation, replication, interpretation, projection or realisation. The term does matter, but what matters more is to understand, that a reconstruction is always fictional, no matter how good you are as an archaeologist or reconstruction specialist. The question remains, how fictional a reconstruction is.

The part that makes a reconstruction archaeological is not only the content (so what are you reconstructing), but also the methodology. As scientists, we need to make sure, that we follow some basic rules in order to create results that are understandable, repeatable and well thought out. We therefore try to create a scientific reconstruction. Like a scientific paper, a scientific reconstruction needs to be reproducible, understandable and transparent. The purpose of a reconstruction can be manifold, but in most cases it is to communicate a theory and/or knowledge. The audience is also heterogene, as reconstructions can be made for children, museum visitors or archaeological colleagues.

Have a look at the picture at the side. What do you see? You don't have to know exactly what site is depicted, but try to have a look at it like an interested observer from the 19th century. You just have heard, that the ancient Assyrians, people you only knew from the Bible and contemporary art, have been discovered and that this image represents how they might have lived like 2.000 years ago. Up until now, you had the impression, that the Assyrians were perished due to “the wrath of God”, like it is depicted in the famous paintings by John Martin: The Fall of Nineveh (1829) or Eugène Delacroix: The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). What do you think how you would have had perceived that image?

Further Reading

  • Hageneuer, S. 2015: Archaeological Reconstructions (Online article on
  • Hageneuer, S. 2019: »Without Drawing the Study of Antiquities is Lame!« – Architektur-Rekonstruktion als wissenschaftliches Tool? In: Der Modelle Tugend 2.0 - Digitale 3D-Rekonstruktion als virtueller Raum der architekturhistorischen Forschung, herausgegeben von Piotr Kuroczyński, Mieke Pfarr-Harfst, und Sander Münster, 2:203–12. Computing in Art and Architecture. Heidelberg:
  • Hodgson, J. 2002: Archaeological Reconstruction: Illustrating the Past. IFA Paper 5. Reading: Institute of Field Archaeologists.
  • James, S. 1997: „Drawing Inferences. Visual reconstruction in theory and practice“. In: Cultural Life of Images. Visual Representation in Archaeology, herausgegeben von B.L. Molyneaux, 22–48. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Types of reconstructions

There are basically three types of reconstruction. although the differentiation is somewhat arbitrary. In any case, it serves as a good basis for structuring reconstructions in a way. In our course, we are mainly concerned with 2D Reconstructions, although we paradoxically produce 3D models. Only if we experience our reconstruction in the 3D software or Virtual Reality, we can speak of a truly digital three-dimensional reconstruction.

Physical Reconstructions

Physical reconstructions are three-dimensional reconstructions, but not virtual or digital. They therefore share a lot with the last category in this list. Nevertheless they differ from the physical manifestation and therefore also their physical restrictions. Physical reconstructions are open air museums like the reconstruction of a medieval castle in Guédelon, France. The scientists there use medieval techniques only and slowly build a castle, which you can visit and support. We also have something similar here in Xanten, where you can visit reconstructions of a Roman city. Another type under this category are scaled models that you often see in museums or exhibitions. Sometimes these models are build of wood and paper, sometimes these models get printed with the help of a 3D printer.

2D Reconstructions (Drawings, CGI)

2D reconstructions are basically all these images that you can put on a paper and have therefore a 2D character. This even holds true for printed 3D renderings, because while examining a printed 3D reconstruction on paper, you do not have the possibility to move around the model, like in the physical reconstruction or a true 3D model. 2D reconstructions are basically for presenting visualisations in printed publications or the web (although the latter is capable of 3D too). The quality of these images vary greatly from simple sketches on paper to elaborated 3D renderings with photo-realistic textures. The quality of the image does not tell you anything about the truthfullness of the model. They are basically ideas brought to paper. Part of this subgroup are also 2D animations, where you simply see a fly-over of an reconstruction. Although you are able to see around a reconstruction, you normally don't have the control over the movement, so you are again restricted to only watch on a flat 2D screen. For some example animations, please see here.

3D Reconstructions (Virtual Models, Virtual Reality)

True 3D reconstructions are models in which you are able to move around freely. This can either be in Virtual Reality or on the computer screen. The important part is, there are no parts of a reconstruction that can be hidden and therefore are invisible. So, the reconstructions you'll create will be 3D reconstructions and only if you render and print them out will become 2D reconstructions.

Further Reading

  • Bator, S./van Ess, M./Hageneuer, S. 2013: Visualisierung der Architektur von Uruk, in: Crüsemann, N. et al. (Hrsg.), Uruk - 5000 Jahre Megacity (Ausstellungskatalog), Petersberg, 365-371.
  • Hageneuer, S. 2014: The visualisation of Uruk - First impressions of the first metropolis in the world, in: Börner, W./Uhrlitz, S. (Hrsg.), Proceedings of the 18th Conference on Cultural Heritage and New Technologies, Wien.
  • — 2016: Le Temple blanc d'Uruk sur sa haute terrasse, in: Quenet, P. (Hrsg.), Ana ziqquratim. Sur la piste de Babel (Ausstellungskatalog), Strasbourg, 112-113.
  • — 2016: Die virtuelle Rekonstruktion von Pi-Ramesse, in: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (Hrsg.), Ausstellungskatalog “Ramses - Göttlicher Herrscher am Nil”, 268-272.

Problem of Perception

One big problem we have in our reconstruction studies is the matter of perception. As archaeologists we might be used to images like these, but we are not immune against wrong perception. If you see an archaeological reconstruction in an exhibition, a publication or somewhere else, how sure are you about the reliability of this visualisation?

As beautiful as these images are, an obvious disadvantage is the subjectivity involved. To be more precise, it is the unknown amount of subjectivity that was involved in creating them. We do not know how good the artist was or how much of a particular image is actually based on proven archaeological facts. We simply do not know how much we can rely on them (Adkins/Adkins 2009, 147; Golvin 2012, 77–82; Green 2012, 13–23). Additionally, elaborate reconstructions also convey the notion of authority, which suggest a non-existing reality or validity, while scientifically based reconstructions should only be a mere suggestion or proposal. Placed in a museum or on television, these reconstructions often get accepted by the audience without any hesitation.

We also need to understand, that there are different levels of sources and reliability. The more reliable sources we use for our reconstruction, the better the reconstruction becomes. On the other hand, we can't really do a reconstruction without any speculation. We therefore need to find ways to illustrate our reliability and levels of sources.


High Medium Low
Primary Sources Secondary Sources Speculation
- Excavations
- Plans, Sections
- Laser Scans
- Parallels
- Ancient Depictions
- Ancient Texts
- Ethnographic Analogies
- All else

Further Reading

  • Adkins, L./Adkins, R.A. 2009: Archaeological Illustration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Golvin, J.-C. 2012: Drawing Reconstruction Images of Ancient Site. In: Jack Green, E. Teeter, J.A. Larson (Eds.), Picturing the Past. Imaging and Imagining the Ancient Middle East, Chicago, 77–82.
  • Green, J. 2012: Introduction. In: Jack Green, E. Teeter, J.A. Larson (Eds.), Picturing the Past. Imaging and Imagining the Ancient Middle East, Chicago, 13–23.
  • Hageneuer, S. 2015: Bilder vergangener Kulturen - Architektur-Rekonstruktionen in der Vorderasiatischen Archäologie des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, Alter Orient Aktuell 13/2015, 4-9.
  • — 2016: The influence of early architectural reconstruction drawings in Near Eastern Archaeology, in: Proceedings of the 9th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE), Wiesbaden, 359-370.

Possible solutions

Of course, we are not the first who thought of that problem and there is a whole subgroup within the reconstruction studies that deal with finding correct methodologies in order to create reconstructions. One result of these group was made public in 2006: The London Charter for the computer-based visualisation of cultural heritage. Four paragraphs are of special interest to us:

  • 4.4 It should be made clear to users what a computer-based visualisation seeks to represent, for example the existing state, an evidence-based restoration or an hypothetical reconstruction of a cultural heritage object or site, and the extent and nature of any factual uncertainty.
  • 4.5 A complete list of research sources used and their provenance should be disseminated.
  • 4.6 Documentation of the evaluative, analytical, deductive, interpretative and creative decisions made in the course of computer-based visualisation should be disseminated in such a way that the relationship between research sources, implicit knowledge, explicit reasoning, and visualisation-based outcomes can be understood.
  • 4.8 A description of the visualisation methods should be disseminated if these are not likely to be widely understood within relevant communities of practice.

2011 there was another meeting, this time in Seville and the outcome of that meeting was a more defined set of principles: The Seville Principles - International principles of Virtual Archaeology:

  • 4.2 When performing virtual restorations or reconstructions, these must explicitly or through additional interpretations show the different levels of accuracy on which the restoration or reconstruction is based.
  • 4.3 In so far as many archaeological remains have been and are being restored or reconstructed, computer-based visualisation should really help both professionals and public to differentiate clearly among: remains that have been conserved “in situ”; remains that have been returned to their original position (real anastylosis); areas that have been partially or completely rebuilt on the original remains; and finally, areas that have been virtually restored or reconstructed.

In order for us to follow these rules, but at the same time keep our curriculum, we will use a Reconstruction Protocol in order to document our process. When you will start your project, you will be given a template in which you can enter all the steps of your project. The protocol was created in a way that it is in some capacity very detailed, but will not take away to much time from your reconstruction process.

Try to think about what you have read. What reconstructions are and how they are communicated as well as what you can do when creating reconstructions by yourself in order to make sure that your result gets documented, communicated and presented as good as possible.


This page was last edited on 2024-04-10 11:28

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This page was last edited on 2024-04-10 11:28

Sebastian Hageneuer
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